W. Joseph Campbell

Challenge the dominant narrative? Who, us?

In Debunking, Media myths on September 4, 2011 at 9:01 am

No surprise here.

The mainstream news media, as expected, have ignored the publication of an impressively researched and authoritative book challenging the narrative that Thomas Jefferson had children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

The 400-page work, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, was released September 1 at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington.

A search of the LexisNexis database reveals no major U.S. news organization has since reported on the book’s appearance or, more important, on its content.

That Jefferson sired children with Hemings has long been accepted and reported as fact by mainstream news media, even though DNA testing often cited to support the claim was misreported when released in Nature magazine in 1998.

News reports then often characterized the DNA tests as having verified Jefferson’s parentage of at least one of Hemings’ children.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, declared:

“DNA evidence has confirmed that Thomas Jefferson, the revered third president of the United States, fathered at least one child by his slave-mistress, Sally Hemings.”

And the New York Times asserted:

“DNA tests on the descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s family and of Jefferson’s young slave, Sally Hemings, offer compelling evidence that the nation’s third President fathered at least one of her children, according to an article in the scientific journal Nature.”

That evidence, the Times declared, “is likely to send historians scurrying to re-evaluate Jefferson, particularly his role in the anti-slavery movement.”

But in fact the DNA tests identified Jefferson as one of about two dozen Jefferson males who could have fathered Hemings’ last child, Eston.

The new book  — which places between hard covers the report and essays issued 10 years ago by a commission of scholars that investigated the Jefferson-Hemings matter — declares that “much of the public has been misled about the significance of the DNA tests … first reported in the journal Nature in November 1998.

“While the tests were professionally done by distinguished experts, they were never designed to prove, and in fact could not have proven, that Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of Sally Hemings’ children.

“The tests merely establish a strong probability that Sally Hemings’ youngest son, Eston, was fathered by one of the more than two dozen Jefferson men in Virginia at the time ….”

Thomas Jefferson: Library of Congress

The new book says circumstantial evidence points more powerfully to Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph (or his sons), in the question of Eston Hemings’ paternity.

Randolph Jefferson, the book says, was known to have socialized with the slaves at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home near Charlottesville, VA.

Randolph Jefferson was a dozen years younger than the president, and the available record offers no evidence that Thomas Jefferson “enjoyed socializing at night with Monticello slaves,” the book says.

Eston Hemings’ was conceived around August 1807, when Thomas Jefferson was 64 and in declining health — factors that further diminish the likelihood of his paternity.

Jefferson’s age and ailments always have represented crucial exculpatory evidence, in my view. That and the fact that Hemings had no children after Jefferson retired to Monticello from public life.

What’s more, the book says “Sally Hemings appears to have been a very minor figure in Thomas Jefferson’s life,” noting that Jefferson referred to her “in but four of his tens of thousands of letters.”

Of particular interest to Media Myth Alert is why the mainstream news media would ignore compelling evidence that exonerates Jefferson, or at least seriously complicates the paternity case against him.

Why wouldn’t the news media find appealing an opportunity to challenge the dominant narrative about Jefferson and his purported slave-mistress?

A number of reasons offer themselves.

One is that the new book essentially is a compilation of reports released in April 2001. In the new book’s acknowledgements, editor Robert F. Turner apologizes to members of the scholars commission “for the long delay in finally getting this volume in print.”

But the volume’s delayed publication doesn’t make the case against Jefferson’s paternity any less powerful or less compelling.

It is a complex case, and complexity seldom appeals to the news media. Simplistic tales are far more engaging, alluring, and easy to report.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong (which does not discuss the Jefferson-Hemings controversy), media-driven myths “tend to minimize or negate complexity in historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead.”

As does the dominant narrative of the Jefferson-Hemings matter.

That Thomas Jefferson sired offspring by a slave-mistress is an intriguing and perversely delicious story. But it is hardly settled history. It’s more likely a misreading of history — a misreading that the well-written and thoroughly researched new book, to its credit, seeks to correct.


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